It was just hours after Peter Tatchell’s arrest and he couldn’t speak over the phone for very long.
After his arrest for protesting the detainment of more than 100 queer Chechens as the World Cup opened, Tatchell said in a phone call that Neo-Nazis reportedly put him on a “wanted list.” Far-right nationalist groups “want revenge against [him] for having dared to challenge Putin,” the U.K.-based LGBTQ activist claimed on Thursday as he headed back to his hotel for shelter.
“I’m taking stock and consulting other people to decide if I should do anything further,” he told INTO, with midnight creeping ever closer in central Moscow. “The risks will dramatically escalate if I try to do something further.”
Earlier in the day, Tatchell was detained for nearly two hours after leading a one-man protest outside of the Kremlin. While standing next to a statue of former military commander Marshal Zhukov, the LGBTQ rights campaigner held a sign blasting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing inaction in the Chechen crisis.
“Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people,” the poster read.
The demonstration, however, would be very short-lived. Within a minute of the protest, law enforcement officials approached Tatchell to demand that he stand down. They claimed that all protests either near the presidential palace or inside the building have been banned, per Federal Law 54. Furthermore, police claimed that Presidential Decree 2002 “criminalizes any protests for the duration of the World Cup.”
“My reply was that this law and this decree are overridden by the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the right to protest,” Tatchell said. “In my interpretation, the Russian parliament and president do not have the right to override the constitution.”
After his arrest, the activist was taken to the Tverskaya police station. During his detention, he was forced to sign a 10-page document before he could be released.
Although Tatchell informed authorities he couldn’t read the paperwork because he isn’t fluent in Russian, police officers compelled him to sign it anyway—saying he wouldn’t be released otherwise. He still has no idea what it said. Officials declined to translate the document for him.
Charged with breaking laws banning “all protests near the Kremlin and during World Cup,” authorities mandated that he appear in court on June 26 to face charges. He told INTO he would not be present on that date.
“I do not intend to appear in court,” Tatchell said. “I plan to skip the country.”
The LGBTQ rights campaigner has urged the Chief of Police of the Kitay-Gorod district in Moscow to “void” the scheduled court appearance, as he is scheduled to fly back to the United Kingdom eight days before the trial date.
But Tatchell hoped that the international attention the incident has garnered—receiving news coverage in The Advocate, CNN, The Daily Mail, Esquire, HuffPost, The Independent, and Reuters—would be redirected to the Russian and Chechen LGBTQ people who don’t have the freedom to protest without fear of violence or deadly retribution.
When queer and trans activists gathered in St. Petersburg in May 2017 to protest the Chechen crackdown—which includes the murder of at least four people—police forcibly dragged protesters away. One individual fainted and 10 were arrested.
In contrast, Tatchell claimed he was treated well by Russian authorities.
“I at least have some degree of protection being a U.K. citizen and holding a British passport,” he said, adding: “Far worse things happen to [LGBTQ Russians]. The risks I took were very small by comparison.
“If they’re not arrested by the police, often the police will tip off far-right extremists and allow [LGBTQ protesters] to be violently assaulted,” Tatchell continued. “It’s a classic tactic by a fascist regime. Right now, the Russian authorities will often work in collusion with neo-Nazis and white nationalists to terrorize their political opponents into silence. If they dare to act, they will be beaten senseless.”
His arrest, however, only increases concern that queer and trans tourists will be persecuted or discriminated against during the 2018 World Cup games.
As the quadrennial tournament kicked off on Thursday, the Oper Slil Telegram channel reported that a Frenchman and his partner were violently assaulted in St. Petersburg—with the French national allegedly left “disabled” by the attack. His jaw was broken during the vicious beating, and he reportedly sustained serious brain injury.
The assailants allegedly responsible for this week’s attack have been identified as Ismet Gaidarov, 25, and Rasul Magomedov, 24, both residents of the Russian republic of Dagestan.
While a recent survey found that 39 percent of Russians believe it’s “likely or highly likely” that queer and trans travelers will be targeted during the World Cup, Tatchell took FIFA to task for allowing the country to host such a prestigious event, calling the decision “appalling.” Since the State Duma passed an anti-gay propaganda law five years ago, hate crimes against members of Russia’s LGBTQ community have doubled.
Meanwhile, Qatar is set to host the World Cup in 2022. Sodomy is criminalized in the majority Muslim country under Article 296 of the Penal Code, which mandates between one and three years in prison for gay sex convictions.
“It’s also appalling that FIFA has done so little to discipline countries and clubs whose fans engage in racist and homophobic abuse,” Tatchell added.
During World Cup qualifying matches in 2016, 16 countries were penalized for homophobic abuse on the part of fans. Frequent offenders included Mexico (with 11 violations), Chile (nine), Argentina (five), Honduras (five), Brazil (four), Peru (four), Panama (three), and El Salvador (two). There were 51 recorded anti-LGBTQ incidents in total.
In April 2018, the St. Petersburg soccer club FC Zenit was fined $60,000 following two incidents in which hooligans chanted racial slurs at matches.
Although the Russian LGBTQ advocacy group Coming Out noted that FIFA adopted nondiscrimination bylines to combat this kind of discriminatory behavior, the organization claimed in a recent press release that local soccer fans in host cities “do not always adhere to it.”
In the midst of the attention the World Cup has brought to Russia’s ongoing LGBTQ rights abuses four years after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Tatchell claimed the queer and trans community is afraid of speaking out.
That’s precisely why he came forward this week: to speak when others cannot.
“Russian and Chechen LGBTQ people are understandably very fearful of the consequences of staging any protests—especially during this lockdown period of the World Cup,” Tatchell said. “That’s why I thought it was so important that I took a stand in solidarity with them and their struggle.”
Note: The World Cup will extend through July 15.